Oscar Wilde archival materials sell big at auction
October 30 2004 12:00 AM ET
A handwritten chapter of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by the author at the behest of his publishers and including the scandalous visit of the title character to an opium den, has been sold for $132,000. The heavily revised text was one of several pieces of memorabilia auctioned Friday on behalf of a private buyer by Sotheby's. A signed first edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray fetched $770,000. The trove of material, described by Sotheby's as "the finest collection of Oscar Wilde material remaining in private hands," was sold for $1.5 million. It was well above the $1.1 million estimate, even though some items did not sell. Most of the items, which included books, letters, photographs, and manuscripts relating to the Irish-born writer, were sold to private buyers or British dealers. Wilde wrote the extra chapter to The Picture of Dorian Gray after publishers asked him to lengthen the novel and add interest and credence to the plot. The completed novel, which tells the story of a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty, was published to controversy in 1890.
One of the centerpiece items of the auction, one of only two known copies of The Wilde Myth, an unpublished book by Lord Alfred Douglas, failed to sell on Friday. The book was a vitriolic attack on the author by Wilde's former lover--the relationship between Douglas and Wilde triggered the author's downfall. An ill-advised libel action against Douglas's authoritarian father, the Marquess of Queensberry, led to Wilde's imprisonment in 1895 for gross indecency. He served two years in prison and died in exile in Paris in 1900 at age 46. Douglas later turned on Wilde, and in The Wilde Myth called him "one of the most powerful forces for evil that has happened in Europe for the last 300 years." The book was considered libelous to then-prime minister Herbert Asquith and was never published. Sotheby's said the book failed to meet its reserve price, which it did not disclose.
A catalog from the auction of the contents of Wilde's London home--sold in 1895 to pay his debts--and a photograph of the author on his deathbed also both failed to sell. Other items that did sell included an inscribed presentation copy of Wilde's theatrical masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, which sold for $48,400. (A presentation copy is a book the author has marked with an inscription and presented to someone.) The author's annotated rehearsal copy of his first published play, Vera; or, the Nihilists, sold for $92,200. It is one of approximately 20 copies printed in the first American edition. Also auctioned was the only known presentation copy of a rare, privately printed historical tragedy, The Duchess of Padua. The copy, inscribed to James Morrison Steele Mackaye, an American dramatist and friend of Henry James, was sold for $770,000. (AP)